About a year ago, I got Autism and Holy Orders: How to Help Seminarians with Autism Become Effective Priests by Deacon Lawrence Sutton. I held off reading it as I was writing a review of a prior book of his & did not want to confuse my mind. (That review of Teaching Students with Autism in a Catholic Setting was published this spring.) I finally got to reading it recently and found it to be a beneficial book for the intended audiences. As each autistic is different, not every line applies to each one, but I think a lot of the content is quite helpful. I will cover some general and specific points in this review.
General Points from Autism and Holy Orders
In general, it is more a catalog of practical tips from a psychologist, which Sutton is, over an academic discussion of autism or a theology of Holy Orders. He writes this book primarily for two audiences, with a third also considered: the first is superiors and seminary formators, the second is autistic priests ourselves, and the less emphasized one is those in a parish with an autistic priest. It is a short book, with the last page being page 101.
It is good to note how autistics can become priests and things that can be done to help us. This is an opening that many would doubt. I still have people wondering how I could have been ordained when I’mautistic. Sutton notes rightly, “A man who has made it through high school and college and entered the seminary may be assumed to have sufficient intelligence to complete seminary and become quite a capable priest.” (pg 32)
One point I would love to expand on is the vocation discernment process for autistics before seminary. I have had multiple people ask me about this – both discerners and vocation directors – and so I see this need. Maybe Sutton, I, or both will produce something along those lines in the future. This is not an issue, more a suggestion for another chapter or article.
Specific Points from Autism and Holy Orders
He rightly notes (pg 12-13) that we should rely on a psychologist to diagnose autism, not adjust a seminarian’s formation plan with no diagnosis, self-diagnosis, or informal diagnosis of autism. I have noted before that if someone cannot afford or find a formal diagnosis from a psychologist, assuming a self-diagnosis and operating based on that can be OK. Still, if a formal diagnosis is possible, it should be sought. This is a situation where there is no obstacle to a formal diagnosis.
Sutton notes how we can infodump as autistics, noting how we can go on and on when talking about a topic we love. I have personally managed to direct this towards being an energetic professor. He notes strategies to help people inform the autistic or the autistic to become better at realizing (pg 47-48).
Sutton accurately describes our challenges with small talk. He notes how our challenges here can be misconstrued as an intelligence or moral issue, which it is not, and notes we should realize it is primarily a social lubricant (pg 50-51).
One thing, Sutton gets kind of right, kind of wrong regards stimming. He states, “High-functioning adults with autism rarely stim unless there is a significant underlying problem or a sudden overwhelming emotion.” (pg 81) This is true for me – and for most others who I know like myself – on the visible level, but it is worth noting that often we simply find ways to do more socially acceptable stims. I twist back and forth in my office chair constantly and often tap my feet or move my toes, and I often read while pacing. I think many who would have gotten rid of stimming by Sutton’s definition would instead have just found stims that cause fewer social issues.
I disagree with Sutton on language. He repeatedly uses “with autism” over “autistic” despite the fact most autistics prefer “autistic,” and that has become more the norm in academic writing in recent years. I already dealt with this in my prior review, and I have nothing to add while reviewing this book.
Overall, I recommend Autism and Holy Orders. It is the only book really on this specific issue. It covers it reasonably well: the biggest issue I have is language, and that is not enough to recommend against it. I hope Deacon Sutton keeps producing books like this, but I also hope he fixes a few things up.